Burgess’s Roman Holiday
The image below shows a gaunt Anthony Burgess, prior to A Clockwork Orange, and far from the cigar-smoking man of letters whose image regularly appeared in the press of the seventies and eighties.
The picture postcard is dated March 1959, and shows Burgess (far left) seated with his wife Lynne (far right), and two friends at the Trevi fountain. Having worked as a teacher for the Colonial Service in British Malaya, Burgess was enjoying a period of leave when this photograph was taken. He recalled that the holiday in Rome was a means of easing back into European life in his autobiography, Little Wilson and Big God. However, the trip was not all relaxation:
‘We threw our coins in the Trevi fountain but did not expect to return to the venal pagan city which eventually became my home. I drank a quart and a half of Frascati daily and heard my heart turning into a punchball. Lynne got through a regular bottle of Bosford’s gin and wept or screamed over it. Soon she calmed down. But we saw that we had acquired suicidal habits in Malaya.’ (Little Wilson and Big God 417)
Burgess’s initial experience of Rome is of throwing coins into the famous fountain for luck, but complications surrounding his relationship with his wife, Lynne, are also evident. This scenario is the starting point for Burgess’s 1976 novel Beard’s Roman Women, which conflates the tourist trip with the author’s anxiety surrounding his wife’s subsequent death. The protagonist, Ronald Beard, resents Rome:
‘In the rainy March of 196- he had, an hour or so before being driven to the airport, cast his remaining metal lire into the Trevi fountain, daring Rome to call him back again. Not that Rome had really called him on this occasion: a matter only, or at least that had been the intention, of a few days’ stopover on the way home from to London from Brunei, via Singapore. He considered that he detested Rome, meaning its bloody history its cowardly citizens, its godless bishops who were also godless popes, its boastful baroque, its insipid cuisine, its sour wine.’ (Beard’s Roman Women 9)
Unlike the tourist Burgess, Ronald Beard has lost his spouse, and Rome is transformed into a land of the dead; a city of rain and ghostly reflections. The city in Beard’s Roman Women is quite unlike the one in the picture postcard, it is a mythical Rome, a spectral place. Anthony Burgess revisited Rome over the course of his life: as a tourist, as a resident, for literary talks and to film a documentary, and his protagonists – F. X. Enderby and Kenneth Toomey, for example – also visit the city. Though Burgess’s experiences of Rome are undoubtedly various, we have perhaps captured Burgess’s initial impressions of the city, preserved in this 1959 image.